China's leaders on Thursday paid their respects at the mausoleum of Mao Zedong to mark the 120th anniversary of his birth, as the founding father of modern China remains a deeply symbolic but divisive figure in the country.
President Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang, along with the five other members of the all-powerful Politburo standing committee, visited the mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, which houses Mao's embalmed body.
"The seven top leaders [made] three bows toward Mao's seated statue and [paid] their respects to the remains of Mao," the official Xinhua news agency reported.
In a speech to the party leadership that followed, Xi, the "princeling" son of a revolutionary veteran, said the party would "hold high the banner of Mao Zedong Thought forever."
But he said Mao had made "serious mistakes" in his later years, in an apparent reference to the political turmoil and extrajudicial violence of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
"Comrade Mao Zedong's mistakes in his later years have their subjective factors and personal responsibility," Xi said.
"Revolutionary leaders are not gods, but human beings," he added. "[We] cannot worship them like gods or refuse to allow people to point out and correct their errors."
In 1966, Mao, concerned over a possible power grab by other party leaders, launched the Cultural Revolution, plunging the country into 10 years of turmoil in which millions of workers, officials and intellectuals were banished to the countryside for hard labor.
Many were tortured, killed or driven to suicide after being denounced by kangaroo courts.
But Mao is also venerated by many as a charismatic leader seen to have liberated China from what they felt was humiliating imperial subjugation.
Xi's warnings appeared lost on thousands of Mao's admirers, who gathered on Thursday to bow before a solid gold statue of their political idol in his hometown of Shaoshan in the southern province of Hunan.
Pilgrims from across the country lit firecrackers and offered flowers in Shaoshan, where Mao was born 120 years ago Thursday, while others ate noodles to symbolize longevity and sang revolutionary songs.
China's state propaganda machine has sanctioned art exhibits, books depicting the life and career of Mao, and a new television series titled simply "Mao Zedong."
Commentators said Mao's image seems to be getting more, not less, popular in recent years, in spite of his role in the deaths of tens of millions of people during the famines of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961) and the Cultural Revolution.
Xiao Jiansheng, editor of the state-run Hunan Daily newspaper, said the provincial party secretary and governor of the province had accompanied Mao's daughter, Li Ne, to Shaoshan to mark the event in an official capacity.
"More and more people seem to be commemorating Mao Zedong these days," Xiao said. "The commemorative activities [in Shaoshan] were on a very large scale."
He said Mao's image had become associated with a "purer" era in the party's history, when corruption wasn't so widespread.
"I think this has a lot to do with the fact that the Cultural Revolution still hasn't been properly reckoned with [in China]," Xiao said.
"A lot of people don't really understand what happened, and they think that [back then] there was health insurance and allocated accommodation, and they think today's society is very unequal; there's a mood of great discontent," he said.
"They think that back then everyone was a bit poorer, but at least they all had the same."
'All of a piece'
Former Xinhua journalist Yang Jisheng, now deputy editor of the cutting edge political magazine Yanhuang Chunqiu, said the party would never be able to rid itself of its association with Mao, regardless of his political record.
"Mao Zedong and the Communist Party are all of a piece," Yang said. "To repudiate Mao would be repudiate the whole of the history of the Communist Party."
He said attitudes towards Mao among ordinary Chinese left out in the cold by several decades of breakneck economic reform and a growing gap between rich and poor were often more positive than those towards the country's leaders.
"They have forgotten the bitter rivalry of the Mao era, and now they use an abstraction of Mao Zedong as a shorthand for social justice," Yang said.
"Actually, so many people suffered oppression, and tens of millions died during the great famines, and hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were persecuted as rightists," he said.
"How can that be called justice?"
Xiao said younger nationalists in today's China also see Mao as a military leader who helped fight the U.S. during the Korean War (1950-1953) and who raised China's international standing.
"Also, the princelings use him as a source of legitimacy for their continuing power over the whole country," he added. "If they were to repudiate Mao, they would lose that legitimacy."
Mao's image is still a powerful icon among China's dispossessed farming communities and other disempowered people, although the government seldom gives its blessing when it is invoked.
Ordinary Chinese who pursue official complaints against the government have banded together in a number of major cities to sing revolutionary songs from the Mao era in public.
Their unofficial "concerts" are usually dispersed by police.
Yang said the growing number of Mao supporters in today's China is symptomatic of smouldering social injustice and resentment.
"Every year, their numbers grow, which shows the reality of their discontent," he said.
"They use him as a way ... of criticizing the current reality."
Tens of millions of people died in China in the famines that followed the start of the Great Leap Forward (1958–1961), a bid by Mao to catch up with U.S. levels of development in just a few years.
Estimates of the total range from the official 10 million figure, to at least 45 million.
But more recently, reports have begun to emerge suggesting that not all of those deaths were from disease or starvation, and that many ate their relatives, friends and even children to stay alive.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.